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Political Challenges and External Pressure: A Case Study of Cuba PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gustavo Machín-Gómez   

 Policy Perspectives, Volume5 , Number3, July-December 2008

The Cuban Revolution in 1959 brought not only domestic socio-political challenges before the newly formed revolutionary regime but also severe external political, economic, diplomatic and security challenges and threats. This was mainly because of the socialist and communist flavoring of the revolt against the dictators, who were supported by the West in general and the USA in particular. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the world from a bipolar to a unipolar entity with the United States as the only superpower, the pressure on Cuba increased further, and continues to grow even to today.  In order to understand the magnitude and intensity of the threat, challenges and external pressures on Cuba, it would be pertinent to look into the contemporary paradigm of international power politics and the international context in which smaller and less powerful nations are facing the aggressive maneuvering of bigger and more powerful nations.

The following points reflect some of the important aspects of the current international context:

  • The United States continues to be the sole superpower: hence, its military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • There is interference in the name of “regime change” in the internal affairs of sovereign states that are not following the agenda of the superpower and its main allies: hence, the direct threats of use of force to Iran and North Korea, and indirect threats to many African and South American states and Pakistan;
  • There is increasing subordination of the rest of the developed world to the plans of the superpower;
  • China and Russia are balancing forces in those issues and regions where their geo-strategic interests conflict with US unilateralism;
  • Coordination mechanisms of the Third World lack capacity and influence: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and other development countries’ organizations seek revitalization;
  • Resistance to the unilateral world, both by some states as well as by progressive forces, is growing in different regions, as is the movement of alternative systems and powers;
  • The neo-liberal scheme crises in Latin America have made governments adopt center and left-center positions: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, etc., plus the activism of the social movements and popular struggles;
  • Following the events of 9/11, security has become a central element of the world agenda, focusing attention on terrorism and narco-trafficking, and leading to actions like creation of anti-missile shields and setting up of rapid intervention forces; and
  • Plans of the West to dismantle the international political and judicial order set up after the end of World War II are under way. New concepts such as “preventive war,” “human security,” “responsibility to protect,” and “pre-emptive strike” are being imposed.

In this international context, it is not difficult to understand the problems that Cuba has been facing since the late 19th and early 20th century when one imperialist force — Spain — was replaced by another imperial force of the modern times, the USA. However, because of the strong movement put up by the Cuban masses, the United States had to liberate Cuba in 1902, though not before forcing a constitutional amendment called “The Platt Amendment” which delimited the independence of the country. Through this amendment:

The United States also reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs in order to defend Cuban independence and to maintain “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty”… other conditions of the Amendment demanded that the Cuban Government… relinquish claims on the Isle of Pines (now known as the Isla de la Juventud), and agree to sell or lease territory for coaling and naval stations to the United States. (This clause ultimately led to the perpetual lease by the United States of Guantánamo Bay.) Finally, the amendment required the Cuban Government to conclude a treaty with the United States that would make the Platt amendment legally binding, and the United States pressured the Cubans to incorporate the terms of the Platt Amendment in the Cuban constitution. The Platt Amendment remained in force until 1934.

The US has invaded Cuba several times; the last time was during the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Since then, Cuba has been struggling to preserve its independence, sovereignty, and development against a policy of isolation imposed on it by the US. This aggressive policy includes an economic blockade, diplomatically called an “embargo,” which is the main obstacle to Cuba’s development. According to a conservative study, the damage caused to the Cuban people by the application of the blockade surpasses $89,000 million. From May 2006 to May 2007, at least 30 countries were affected by the extraterritorial provisions of the blockade policy against Cuba. During the past year, more than 20 vessels from different countries have been badly menaced in order to disturb any type of transaction with Cuba.

As a direct result of this policy, Cuba cannot sell its products in US markets; import anything from the US except food, with strong restrictions and limitations; receive US tourists; use the US dollar in its international transactions; or access the regional and international financial bodies.

As part of the extraterritorial effects of this policy of blockade, an enterprise belonging to a third country can neither sell any product or equipment to Cuba if it has more than 10 percent of US-manufactured components or raw material, nor sell a product to the US if it contains Cuban raw material. At the same time, the US is denying visas to directors and officials of companies negotiating with Cuba. As a result of this policy, the USA has illegally appropriated the famous Cuban cigar, “Cohiba.”

By virtue of the Torricelli Act, not only is trade prohibited to Cuba with US companies based in a third country but also vessels of a third country are obliged to wait for at least six months to touch US ports after having docked in Cuban ports. The Helms-Burton Act extends the territorial application of the initial embargo to apply to foreign companies trading with Cuba and provides powers to the Legislative Branch of the US to try such companies in US courts.

It is important to point out here that the US government has revealed in a document issued by its General Accounting Office that the US devotes more resources to seek out alleged violations to the blockade and travel restrictions to Cuba than to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.

To counteract the blockade, embargos and the policy of isolation, the foreign policy of the Republic of Cuba is aimed to condemn it, to neutralize all attempts against the moral and territorial integrity of the country, and to promote respectful and friendly relations with all the countries of the world. Cuban foreign policy is based on strong adherence to the basic principles of international law and the Charter of the United Nations that respect the sovereignty and independence of states, territorial integrity, self-determination, the equality of states and peoples, the right of equitable and mutual international cooperation and pacific relations between the states, and that reject any kind of interference in the internal affairs of the states. Internationalism, solidarity and unity among the developing world countries are also components of that policy.

Standing with the international community, Cuba condemns all hegemonic and discriminatory practices in international relations. It also rejects the threat and actual use of force against any sovereign country, the adoption of coercive unilateral measures, aggression, and any form of terrorism, including state terrorism. Since the Cuban nation is facing the worst kind of interference and intervention and it knows the cost of the two for any nation, Cuba has developed a very strong policy of non-interference and non-intervention. There are many movements in Latin America that coincide, on principle, with the ideology of the Cuban revolution, but it has never influenced, interfered with or intervened in any of these movements. Cuba’s constitution condemns any type of discrimination on the basis of race, creed or opinion.

Cuba has a very clear position towards terrorism. It strongly condemns every act of terrorism, no matter where it comes from, who carries it out, and who is behind it. It believes that the only way to face this terrible phenomenon is by combating together under the United Nations’ lead. In this regard, Cuba has signed all the treaties and international instruments on terrorism.

Cuba has also been a victim of terrorist attacks since the very beginning of the Revolution. Aggressions and terrorist attacks from US soil, which have counted on the complicity of US authorities, have caused the death of 3,478 Cubans and handicapped 2,099 Cubans for the rest of their lives. The need to avoid the human and material losses caused by these acts gives Cuba the right to self-defense.

Because of Cuban domestic and foreign policy and its struggle to resist the hegemonic designs of the powerful nations, despite all the efforts and resources allocated and spent to implement the blockade against Cuba, the isolation policy has failed. Over the years, Cuba has been able to develop diplomatic relations with 186 countries. In the last 16 years, Cuba has established relations with 59 new states and has 146 missions overseas, out of which 119 are diplomatic representations to states, 4 are representations to international organizations, and 23 are consulates and diplomatic representation offices. Similarly, there are 161 foreign missions in Cuba, of which 155 are states and 6 are international organizations. Of the 118 NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] member countries, 116 attended the Fourteenth Summit held in September 2006 in Havana; 55 were represented by their respective heads of state or government.

Cuba was elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council with more than two-thirds of the votes. The anti-Cuban mandate was discontinued in the Human Rights Council after 20 years of blackmailing, pressures, double standards, selectivity and human rights manipulation, which served as a pretext for maintaining the economic blockade against the country. Cuba was also elected for the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] Executive Council by 157 votes out of 175 possible votes.

On the other hand, the economic war against Cuba has also failed. Last year, 184 countries voted against the economic blockade (98.5 percent of the UN State-Members), whereas only 59 countries had voted in its favor 12 years ago when it was presented for the first time. The blockade has not prevented Cuba’s cooperation overseas. At present, 37,000 Cuban collaborators, which include 18,000 doctors from the health sector, are working in 79 countries.

This is also indicative of the fact that Cuba has not just focused its foreign policy on developing relationships at government level; it has also worked immensely hard on developing people-to-people contact. “Operation Miracle,” which began in July 2004, is one example. Its target is to operate on 6 million blind people from Latin America in 10 years. So far, thanks to the work of Cuban doctors, one million patients from 32 countries have recovered their eyesight under this initiative.

In addition, 30,000 students from 121 countries are currently receiving free education in Cuban universities. One thousand scholarships were offered to Pakistan as well for medical studies. Through the Cuban literacy method “Yes, I can,” approved by UNESCO, over 2.7 million people have learnt to read and write in 22 countries.

Cuban doctors were even resolved to go to the US after Hurricane Katrina to give relief and medical assistance to the victims. However, the Bush administration prevented it.  Instead, they came to Pakistan to provide assistance to the victims of the terrible earthquake of October 2005.

These humanitarian and diplomatic efforts have made it possible for Cuba to resist the external pressure and face the political challenges from within and without with honor, dignity and respect. However, the main success of the Cuban nation is the preservation and manifestation of unity as well as the strong commitment to independence and self-reliance. In the moments of severe economic crises after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the entire nation sacrificed and struggled hard by relying on what it had to achieve what it aspired for, resulting in the betterment of economy in seven odd years and development of the country in a number of areas. This demonstrates that the mobilization of masses is as important an element of strength as the clear vision of the leadership for developing a people into a dignified and respectful nation.

Khurshid Ahmad·

To put things in perspective, the 18th century can be described as the century of enlightenment, the 19th century as the century of liberalism, with the dominance of capitalism in both economic and political realms, and the 20th century as a century of clash and competition between ideologies. The 1917 Revolution, whether someone likes it or not and subscribes to this ideology or not, represented a sea change, and the emergence of socialism as a major challenger to capitalism — an alternative for humanity at that critical juncture of history.

The 1929–30s’ crisis of capitalism perhaps provided the world an opportunity to seize the ground. The cost of WWII in human terms and the struggle against imperialism was so immense that the 20th century cannot be seen as a century of light; instead, it was a century of clash and conflict in distinct geo-economic context with the ideological flavoring of Marx, Lenin and others.

Analyzing Cuba in this historical context reveals that, while the Cuban economy and polity do represent important experiments with positive and negative dimensions, the country’s most impressive aspect is its anti-imperialist and anti-liberalism stance, and the impact it had on all the socioeconomic and political movements in South America. Cuba was the gateway to resistance for regimes opposed to US hegemony in Latin America.

While there may be some intellectual reservations about the inner dynamics of the Cuban economy and polity, the important fact to appreciate is that the Cuban people have stood by their leadership and its vision. The resistance Cuba has offered would not have been possible unless the hearts and minds of the people were in it. It is interesting to compare the positions of the US and Cuba: the former, the only superpower, with formidable political, economic, military and scientific strengths, a population of three hundred million, vast resources stretching over half of the world, around 700 military bases in 89 countries—a daunting opponent even when there were two superpowers in the world; and the latter, a small speck of an island with eleven million people that has been facing all the wrath and fury of the now single superpower since the dawn of its revolution.

Although the revolutionary movement and fervor that emanated from Cuba unfortunately could not fully succeed in the rest of South America, it did influence social, political and economic movements there, and the most impressive aspect of this influence is its fuelling of the will to resist empires despite the asymmetry of power. This is a very important example of a people having confidence in their values, system and leadership. If a people have decided to stand by their vision, independence and honor, asymmetry of power is not enough to subject them to a life of surrender and humiliation. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 may be considered a landmark event in this regard.

There are some lessons that can be derived from Cuban experience:

  • Despite the asymmetrical paradigm of power, hegemony, domination, intervention, interference and manipulation, it is possible for the weak to stand up to resist for their honor and independence. If occupation is the dark side of civilization, resistance is the light beyond the tunnel. In this will to resist, Cuba is not the only example; North Korea, Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and freedom movements in 140 countries during the movement for decolonization have shown similar resistance. Therefore, while the power and force of hegemony cannot be denied, there is also a lot to learn from the strength of resistance and the power of the weak who are prepared to stand for their ideals and honor.


Today’s world is confronted with the paradigm of hegemony, power without justice, and disregard for principles, and the only hope lies in reorganization, clarity of vision, strong conviction, sustained efforts and perseverance in resistance. There was a time when Cuba was isolated, but it did not accept the status quo. It broke those shackles with a policy of engagement, outreach and consultative diplomacy.

  • A policy that is made under threats and fear can never be a sane policy, as it would be made under subjugation instead of freedom. In the history of Cuba, there are many things for Pakistan to learn, as the latter is also facing the same superpower, with its military, economic and diplomatic presence and with the same paradigm of power.
  • Cuba has specialized in the development of one of the best health care services in the world and provides its specialized services to humanity; Cuban doctors, health care facilities, and health education have been very important contributions. Up to 1990, Cuba’s economy depended upon Soviet support but where the disintegration of the Soviet Union shook the Cuban economy to its roots, it also gave the Cubans a historic opportunity.  Their strategy of development since the collapse of the USSR may be summed up as (i) self-reliance; (ii) living within available means; and (iii) strong sense of nationalism translating into development of own resources by neither fleeing nor letting the capital fly out to develop. This strategy is paying dividends after seven years of very severe economic crisis.

These are a few lessons that other nations resisting hegemonic powers and external pressures can derive from Cuba’s experience.

M. Akram Zaki·

The essence of civilization is to subject the use of force to laws, but despite the fact that civilizations over the years have tried to tame the use of brute force by laws and regulations, the strong and powerful nations still have a tendency or proclivity to use it. The less powerful nations find it both morally right and politically expedient to rely on the UN Charter and the principles of International Law because human history is replete with evidence that the strong exact what they can and the weak grant what they must. Therefore, laws are needed more for the protection of the small and the less powerful.

Secondly, powerful nations have always tried to impose their will on those less powerful. However, history reveals that whenever a single country arrogates the right to decide the destiny of the world to itself, countervailing forces emerge; first, to thwart its plans, then to checkmate it, and eventually to defeat it. Since the policy of unilateralism, military intervention, and preemptive strikes that was adopted by the United States in recent years has failed, there is a clear indication of a movement towards a ‘multi-central’ world.

Nevertheless, it also needs to be kept in mind that the US as a nation is not evil altogether. It has the traditions of Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson. In fact, some of the principles of current International Law were enunciated by President Wilson but the Bush administration has done away with them. There is a growing awareness among Americans that the present administration wants to take them back to the primitive age; however, they want to live in civilization as other nations do and this fact is a ray of hope for the international community. Another source of hope is the emergence of new forces in the world and it seems that the collapse of the unipolar world, which was a temporary aberration resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, will be seen shortly.

Thirdly, the less powerful nations have to act collectively. Just as powerful industrialists can try to impose their terms but they can be limited through collective bargaining from trade unions, so, in the international arena, the smaller and weaker nations emerging from colonialism have found it necessary to coordinate their policies after the rolling back of colonialism. The Bandung Conference of Asian and African nations in 1955 was the beginning in this regard. It was followed by the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, which grew in much larger numbers. This shows that there is a coordination of developing nations to face the more powerful and compel them to pay attention to their demands.

Subsequently, some great thinkers emerged, such as the Latin American thinker Raul Prebish, who was the first intellectual to advocate that favorable terms of trade, basic principles of justice, economic support, proper value for the products of primary goods, and loans on reasonable terms must be sought and achieved. Thus began the movement that led to the “United Nations Conference on Trade and Development” (UNCTAD). It was here that the 77 nations first formulated their common agenda to negotiate with the powerful nations. From that forum, they demanded that at least one percent of the GDP of the developed nations should be given as assistance to developing nations. After much bargaining, it was agreed that the developed nations would give 0.7 percent. However, from the 1960s to the 21st century, the developed countries have not fulfilled even this reduced obligation of 0.7 percent to which they agreed; yet they claim that they are giving aid.

The Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77 — which have a different connotation in the present time — represent a struggle of the developing nations who were subjected to colonialism and exploitation, and who have a long journey ahead to break the backbone of poverty, ignorance and disease. These countries can only succeed through collective action within the international community and by asserting themselves in the noblest and most positive way. There is a sign in the fact that 180 votes were cast in favor of removing the sanctions on Cuba: the smaller and weaker countries understand each others’ needs and they are willing to cooperate with each other. If the developing nations stand together, the imbalance in the international global system, where power politics has overtaken the rule of law, will be substantially corrected. Cuba has played an important role in this regard.

Coming to the Cuban domestic struggle for liberation and freedom: during the days of American influence, there was a dictator, General Fulgencio Batista, and an elite class, as is the case in every country that is under American influence. But the Cuban dictator was overthrown on January 1, 1959, and the elites who supported and benefited from him and from the American assistance went away to the US. So, if there is any Cuban opposition, it is in exile in America, mostly in Miami, which originally encouraged the United States to find excuses to invade Cuba.
In 1961, after the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban missile crisis, which were resolved through negotiations between the two super powers, the Pentagon crafted a very serious and nasty plan to invade Cuba. However, President John F. Kennedy vetoed it, which is thought to be resulting in his assassination because he was considered to be pro-Cuba and not cherished by the policymaking elites of the US. This shows the level of coercion and aggression amongst US policymakers.

Living under these threats, the Cuban government kept its emphasis on education, health and human development, shifting the focus from urban to rural areas to improve the standard of living of the rural population and to provide them opportunities for progress, livelihood and self-reliance. The main burden of the government, armament and equipment, was borne by the Soviet Union, while Cuba’s own resources were focused on human development and development of the country, which laid the foundations for its future.

Pakistan also needs to learn some lessons from the Cuban experience of resistance. External pressures have always been hovering over the political, economic, social and military horizons of Pakistan and, considering the nature of the power politics, it seems that these pressures will be remain in the future. However, the rule of law, which Cuba has practiced on the international level to safeguard its sovereignty against foreign pressures, will eventually succeed in Pakistan if the people and leadership perceive the threats posed by internal political challenges and external pressures looming over the nation, and stand united with the vision to progress and will to resist the ever-growing influence of the internal and the international monolithic system.

There is no denying the fact that the more it depends on its own nationalconduct, self-discipline, self-reliance and rule of law, the better prospects Pakistan will have to effectively resist not only internal pressures, which are illegal and illegitimate, but also external forces, which are trying to impose their way of life and their will on the nation of Pakistan. The Chinese revolution in 1949, Cuban revolution in 1959 and Iranian revolution in 1979 are beacons of hope, not only for Pakistan but for the entire Muslim world. Our leaders and masses need to learn the lesson from these revolutions that when a leadership, like the Cuban Batista, is imposed on the people by foreign powers, their destiny is in disgrace; whereas, with the backing of people, the leadership can resist foreign pressures and gradually progress.


Hillyard, Mick and Vaughne Miller. 1998. Cuba and the Helms-Burton Act. House of Commons Library Research Paper 98/114. December 14. London: House of Commons Library. http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp98/rp98-114.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008).

United States Government Accountability Office. 2007. Economic Sanctions: Agencies Face Competing Priorities in Enforcing the U.S. Embargo on Cuba. November. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0880.pdf (accessed July 1, 2008).

Johnson, Chalmers. 2006. Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books.

· His Excellency Gustavo Machín-Gómez is the Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to Pakistan.

U.S. State Department, “The United States, Cuba, and the Platt Amendment, 1901,” http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/ip/86557.htm (accessed June 28, 2008).

The 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion was an unsuccessful attempt in south-west Cuba by armed Cuban exiles, planned and funded by the United States, to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro, shortly after John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in the US.

The Torricelli Act, also known as The Cuban Democracy Act, was enacted in 1992 on an initiative by Robert Torricelli, who was then a member of the United States House of Representatives. The Torricelli Act made the economic blockade on Cuba more severe than it had previously been. It prevented food and medicine from being shipped to Cuba. The only exception allowed was humanitarian aid. The intended goal of the Torricelli Act, as described by Torricelli, was to paralyze the Cuban economy, in the hopes that after a few weeks it would lead to the fall of the Cuban president, Fidel Castro (Wikipedia, s. v. “Torricelli Act,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Torricelli_Act [accessed July 1, 2008]).

In 1996, the shooting down of two US planes by the Cuban military accelerated the adoption by Washington of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996, also known as the “Helms-Burton Act.” This extended the territorial application of the existing embargo to apply to foreign companies trading with Cuba, and penalized foreign companies allegedly “trafficking” in property formerly owned by US citizens but expropriated by Cuba after the 1959 revolution (Hillyard and Miller 1998).

United States Government Accountability Office 2007.

· Prof. Khurshid Ahmad is Chairman, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.

Johnson 2006.

· Mr. M. Akram Zaki is former Secretary General, Foreign Affairs, Government of Pakistan and member, IPS NAC.


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